BALTIMORE – Whenever Dillyel Gibson is tempted to put her head down on her desk to sleep during class, she hears a voice.
It is the booming voice of Stephen Gibson, her former principal at Hamilton Middle School in Baltimore, telling her to keep her head up and “do what you got to do to get out” of school.
“That was my man,” says Dillyell, 14, who is now in high school in part, she believes, because of the intervention of Stephen Gibson, who is no relation.
Dillyell’s experience is exactly the kind of thing state officials were hoping to see when they established the Distinguished Principal Fellowship Program, which brought successful principals to low-performing schools in Baltimore.
Four principals were chosen to work for three years in city schools in hopes of increasing student achievement, enhancing parent and community involvement and revamping leadership and staff. The principals were paid $125,000 a year.
Stephen Gibson, who was principal at Lime Kiln Elementary School in Howard County before applying for the program, finished working at Hamilton in 2005. So did the principal assigned to Northeast Middle School. Two of the original four are still working – one at Brehms Lane Elementary and one at William Paca Elementary – and are scheduled to complete their tenure at the end of the school year.
The state department of education has been quick to characterize the program as a success, saying a report presented at last month’s meeting by an independent consulting firm proves the program increased scores, attendance and improved school environment.
But the department, in a press release, also says the report by the Evaluation Association, Inc. indicates the Hamilton and Northeast middle school achievement scores were “more modest” than the more significant gains in the elementary schools. Critics say this description is overly generous because neither of the middle schools demonstrated significant improvement in the tests.
The failure of the middle school scores to increase significantly has raised some doubts about the success of the program – just as it is set to launch statewide. Starting next year, low-scoring schools across the school will be able apply for the program.
State education officials are undaunted, however.
“The evaluation was very positive and the state board was pleased with the evaluation,” said Mary Cary, assistant state superintendent for leadership development, noting the middle schools’ scores are slowly moving in the right direction and that the program had a number of goals.
For the past three years, Hamilton has met No Child Left Behind standards only once for reading in 2004. However, the Maryland School Assessment math test scores increased each year. For instance, there was a 28 percent increase in sixth grade math scores, the report says.
Stephen Gibson studies tests scores and tends to trust them as a gauge of success, but he says there is more to being a principal than charts and graphs.
He said he tries to “see the faces behind the data [and see] what are the things that go on with that kid on a daily basis that perhaps are influencing where they are, where they have been and where they are going to go.”
Dillyel Gibson was one of the students in whom he took a special interest, said Christine Connor, the new Hamilton principal who was Stephen Gibson’s intern for the last year of the program. At each school, the distinguished principal had an intern to continue whatever progress was being made in the program.
Although Dillyel Gibson still struggles academically, she said Stephen Gibson taught her to respect herself, to dress properly, be well-mannered and go to school everyday.
Teachers remember Stephen Gibson visiting classrooms and stopping kids in the hall to ask them about their day. When asked about his Hamilton experience, Gibson always seems to relate a question to a particular child. He mentions a boy who wrote a poem about the school being a safe haven. Another earned a perfect score in the MSA math section.
Before he could even start to meet the instructional needs of the students, Gibson said he had to repair the school.
“The building was in horrible condition,” he said. “How could anyone go to school here and have a chance to learn?”
“I truly believe that the environment was going to set the tone for what people thought was going to happen.”
Gibson soon got down to work. He painted the walls, retiled classrooms, fixed lockers and planted trees outside the northeast Baltimore campus.
Making a school’s climate suitable for learning, as Gibson did, was one of the goals of the program, Cary said.
“[The school] was brighter” after his efforts, said Dana Whelchel, a 7th grade language arts teacher at Hamilton since 2002.
But the physical repairs were just the beginning of Gibson’s plan to make Hamilton seem more “like a school” and less like a holding facility, he said. He reinvigorated the Parent Teacher Association, established an arts program, resurrected the band and launched a yearbook.
Gibson also established an academic academy his second year. Based on MSA scores and teacher recommendations, students who are admitted to the academy are taught normal curriculum at an accelerated pace, said Megan Gorkiewicz, the academy’s science teacher. The academy has around 120 students this year, she said.
Although Connor said Gibson’s efforts “recharged” the staff, she added he wasn’t always greeted with open arms: Connor said some staff joked he was “the Gucci Principal” because he was being paid about $20,000 more than a principal with his experience normally would be in Baltimore.
Gibson’s image did little to reverse this nickname, but for some, his actions did. With his three-piece suit and polished shoes, Ginson is remembered as being “slick” by Mary Oster, a 7th grade language arts teacher who came to Hamilton in 2003.”
“You would see the Gucci Principal leaning down and picking up trash,” she added.
Kenneth Carter, who has taught at Hamilton for 31 years, said some teachers also questioned why the state didn’t hire “homegrown talent.”
Whelchel said the program seems like a “touchy” subject for the city school system because it can seem like they are “not good enough” to fix there own problems. Mary Minter, the program principal at William Paca, was the only distinguished principal from Baltimore.
Gibson was aware of the sensitivity of his role. He said the first thing he said at his first staff meeting was that “nobody was going to be fired.”
“You can’t make wholesale changes and make things work,” he said, noting he stressed teacher focus should be on instruction, not discipline.
“You have got to try to work within the structure that you have.”
Whelchel said the program can be successful in other jurisdictions as long as the principal’s motivation is right.
“Are they coming for the kids or are they coming with a big stick?” she said is a question that should be asked of potential distinguished principals.
Whelchel said the program should be longer because three years is not long enough to see significant results.
Gibson agreed. “In three years, we were not going to reverse 30 years of decline,” he said. “All we could simply do was to put into place some pathways to continue to grow.”